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Denis Smith and Malcolm Crosby - men who managed both Sunderland and Oxford!

Ahead of Sunderland’s League Cup clash with Oxford, Chris Wynn takes a closer look at two men with strong ties to both clubs - Denis Smith and Malcolm Crosby.

Soccer - Barclay’s League Division Two - Tranmere Rovers v Sunderland Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

It was the summer of 1982 and away from Madness being top of the charts with a House of Fun, a 34-year-old Denis Smith was entering the world of football management with perennial fourth division strugglers York City - taking over a club he described on the day he joined as “a shambles”.

As Smith took charge a 27-year-old Malcolm Crosby was finishing his first full season at Bootham Cresent having joined the previous summer after almost ten years at Aldershot.

York City had finished 17th in Division Four the previous year to Smith taking the hot seat - which was remarkably an improvement on the season before where they had finished bottom of the football league, surviving by two votes as Altrincham aimed to join the Football League via the old voting system.

Having spent the previous 14 years with a largely successful Stoke City and taking his uncompromising character into account, it was clear the new manager would ring the changes at York City. Smith went to work, first installing Viv Busby as his assistant manager, who would also be given the remit of hooking Smith if he was poor on the pitch in his first season as he carried on playing duties.

With Smith at the back, Roger Jones between the sticks, Crosby in midfield and a young Irish striker by the name of John Byrne up front, York City would finish seventh in Smith’s first full season. However, this would clearly not be enough for the young manager and with a limited budget and the decision to replace himself with John MacPhail in the back four York City went on to claim the fourth division title in 1983-84 having amassed 101 points in the process.

As York City approached the challenge of the Division Three, Malcolm Crosby joined Denis Smith’s backroom staff where he was also joined by Roger Jones as goalkeeper coach. It was clear Denis Smith was ambitious and impatient to climb the footballing ladder and his York side reflected that approach to their task of third tier football, in the following two years they would finish 7th and 8th in Division Three.

Soccer - Oxford United Photocall
Denis Smith during his time as Oxford United manager
Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

It was clear this consistent overachievement as a young manager combined with issues in the boardroom meant Smith would leave the Minstermen, and in the summer of 1987, he did. Bob Murray pulled off his first masterstroke as Chairman of Sunderland AFC when he appointed Smith, who was still only 39-years-old, together with his staff of Viv Busby as assistant and Malcolm Crosby and Roger Jones as coaches.

As Sunderland had fallen into the third tier the football league for the first time in our history their remit was clear – get back to Division Two... quickly.

Despite taking over a second club that could be described as a shambles, his impact was immediate and Sunderland would win the Division Three title at the first attempt in 1987-88.

After a season of consolidation the following year, Sunderland then made the play-offs where a place in the final was secured with a historic semi-final second leg victory at St James' Park that was arguably his finest hour as Sunderland boss.

Despite a poor showing in the final that ended in defeat, Sunderland would be promoted to Division One due to Swindon Town being found guilty of financial irregularities, all against the backdrop of claims to the place in the top flight submitted by Newcastle United and Ron Atkinson's Sheffield Wednesday.

The unlikely promotion was confirmed and although it would never be refused, it was arguably too soon for Denis Smith's side that had been built on a shoestring with the help from youth players stepping up to the first team.

Soccer - FA Cup Final - Liverpool v Sunderland - Wembley Stadium
Malcolm Crosby leads his Sunderland out at Wembley ahead of the 1992 FA Cup final
Photo by Ross Kinnaird - EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

By the beginning of the 1990-91 season, Smith had taken York City from the bottom of the football league to the brink of Division Two and returned Sunderland to not only the second tier but back to the top flight - in only his first eight seasons in football management and he was still only 42.

Lack of support from the board made relegation inevitable, although a brave fight for survival meant Denis Smith still had the support of the Roker faithful. This would soon fade as a poor start to the following season in the second division meant Smith would be sacked from the Sunderland hot seat.

By this time Malcolm Crosby had replaced Viv Busby as assistant manager and was asked to step in to the role as caretaker until a replacement was found. Many names were linked with the role, including Neil Warnock and Dave Bassett, but what happened next caught the Sunderland board off guard.

Malcolm Crosby would take his second division Sunderland side all the way to the 1992 FA Cup final, defeating top flight West Ham United, Chelsea and Norwich City on their way.

Pressure from the fans meant Crosby would be appointed permanent Sunderland manager before the final against Liverpool that ultimately ended in defeat. After a disappointing start to the following season, Crosby was relieved of his duties as Sunderland manager and was replaced by Terry Butcher who Crosby had brought to the club.

Via a brief spell at Bristol City, Denis Smith was appointed manager of Oxford United in September 1993 and almost immediately made Malcolm Crosby his assistant.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Wolverhampton Wanderers v West Bromwich Albion
Denis Smith and Malcolm Crosby celebrating a West Bromwich Albion goal against rivals Wolves
Photo by Steve Mitchell/EMPICS via Getty Images

The first season at the Manor Ground would end in relegation which was perhaps predictable based on the financial restraints at the club. It took two years to achieve promotion back to the second tier where it would take the sale of the big name players such as Jim Magilton and Joey Beauchamp to raise funds to strengthen the squad.

Bargain buys such as Darren Purse, Matt Elliott and Phil Gilchrist meant Smith's Oxford cemented themselves into a mid-table second tier side by the time West Bromwich Albion paid £100,000 compensation to take over as manager at the Hawthorns in December 1997.

As with Sunderland, Crosby again took over in a caretaker capacity to fill in for the departure of Smith, this time it would only last a month when he again followed Smith to be his assistant manager.

Finishing 10th in the first season in the West Midlands and achieving the highest league position for over a decade during 1997-98, this was followed up with a 12th place finish the following season ahead of Smith and Crosby controversially losing their jobs two weeks before the beginning of the 1999-2000 season. A decision that can be questioned in hindsight as West Brom would end the following season in 21st position.

The two would never work together again in the same capacity after losing the positions at West Brom although both would continue work in football. Denis Smith in further management roles and in a coaching capacity for Malcolm Crosby, working with the likes of Steve McClaren at Derby County and Gareth Southgate at Middlesbrough.

With a bit of luck or better decisions on which job to take on next who knows what heights the management pairing could have reached but it's certainly in the case of Sunderland and Oxford United, they left both clubs in a much better position than the day they took charge.